U.S. Senate Confirms John B. King, Jr. as Education Secretary

The former New York education commissioner has 10 months to make his mark before the Obama administration ends.

by / March 15, 2016
John B. King, Jr. reads to students during the Read Where You Are Day of Action. U.S. Department of Education

John B. King, Jr. no longer has to put "acting" before his education secretary title.

The U.S. Senate voted 49-40 to confirm King as the U.S. education secretary on Monday, March 14. Eleven senators were not there to vote, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders, though Rubio would have voted against the confirmation, said John Cornyn, the Senate's majority whip.

King took over as acting secretary after Arne Duncan stepped down in December. When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in December, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) encouraged Obama to nominate him rather than keeping him in the acting role for the duration of his administration. In his speech on the floor, Alexander stressed that the vote was more about the position than the person who would fill it.

"We need an education secretary who is confirmed and accountable to Congress while we are implementing a law that may govern elementary and secondary education for some time," Alexander said before the vote. "I want to be sure we are working together to implement the law the way Congress wrote it." 

Alexandar and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) worked hard to pass the legislation in a bi-partisan manner last year. The U.S. Education Department already named 24 committee members who will meet March 21-23 and April 6-8 to draft regulations that govern the act's implementation.

But King's record as the former New York education commissioner and in the department didn't convince Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to vote for him. 

"Based on the policies he has supported, the bipartisan opposition he has invited throughout his career, and his uncompromising commitment to the designs of bureaucrats and central planners over the lived experiences of parents and teachers, I believe it would be a grave error for the Senate to confirm Dr. King’s nomination at this time," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said before the vote.

Senators used their time on the floor before the vote to praise King's dedication to education, blast the Education Department's practices and discuss how committed they think he will be to changing the department's ways. They recognized that King inherited the department's policies and practices, but his commitments to change have been mixed. 

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) decried the department's practice of creating policies that don't have the force of law and bullying schools into following them by threatening to take away federal funding. His conversations with King failed to assure him that the situation would change.

"Regrettably, Dr. King has refused to commit to stopping these regulatory abuses if he were confirmed," Lankford said. "For that reason, I will oppose his nomination today."

On the other hand, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) chose to support him. She bemoaned the department's failure to protect students from predatory lenders and failure to give many of them debt relief in a timely manner. King agreed to review the student loan program and require lenders to review their records, as well as refund military students who were overcharged on their student loans. King also is working on proposals that will give students debt relief since college lenders took advantage of them.

"These are serious steps in the right direction," Warren said. "For those reasons, I will vote for him today, but let’s be clear that this is not the end of the story. Dr. King has an enormous amount of work to do to get the department’s higher education house in order, and the American people will be watching closely for results." 

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.